updated 5:07 a.m. CT, Thurs., March. 5, 2009
LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS - The widespread nature of the economic crisis in the United States can be seen clearly at the Mercado San Jose Grocery and Bakery, particularly on Friday nights when paychecks are handed out in Little Rock's Hispanic community.
At a little cubicle by the front door, young men line up at the money transfer window to send cash home to their families in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and other countries where poverty is rampant.
These days, though, the lines are shorter than normal and the amounts of money wired home are much lower than they were last year. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 73 percent of Hispanics in the United States are reporting a drop in the money they can afford to send home.
"Many foreign-born Hispanics seem to be hit harder by this economic downturn than native-born Hispanics or the general U.S. population," said Mark Lopez, the associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.
"They're the ones that have borne the large part of the job loss in this downturn and they're the ones that seem to be most at risk for losing their homes to foreclosure," he said.
Store manager Saul Gutierrez agrees that the number of foreign transactions from workers to their families is way down. "I would say about 50 to 55 percent," he said. "There's weeks where it's even more than 60 percent, [and it's] real slow, extremely slow."
Mexican immigrant Moises Montegron, who struggles to find work in construction, said he used to send money home four times a month, but now it's down to just twice a month.
Roberto Ramirez, also from Mexico, is in a worse situation. When construction jobs were more plentiful, he said, he would send money to his family as often as five times in one month. Now, with jobs scarce, he can barely afford a once a month payment.
For the foreign-born workers who are separated from their families, the inability to earn a sufficient wage to help their loved ones is both an economic and an emotional issue.
"Suddenly people are not capable to fulfill that promise," said Maura Lozano-Yancy, the publisher of Hola Arkansas, a regional bilingual newspaper. "It's pretty hard to know that you cannot send money to somebody that [needs] it."
Recent news reports that fewer Hispanics may be migrating to the United States and some are even returning to their home countries, because of the U.S. economic crisis, are drawing attention in Little Rock, where signs of these trends can be seen.
Ignacio Alvarez, owner of Mexican restaurant La Hacienda, said he knows of two local families who returned to Mexico recently.
Workers who lose their jobs in the United States often face pressure to return home, Alvarez said. "When the family is in Mexico or Guatemala, they say, 'Well, what are you doing there, just come back and we can do something here.'"
Amid the passionate argument over the estimated 8.5 million Hispanics in the United States illegally taking jobs away from American citizens, there's another angle to consider: Foreign-born Hispanics in the United States working legally are also hurting, along with their extended families south of the border.